Album of Terrorists
Decoy of Duck
CIA at Home, FBI Abroad
Explosion of Names
excerpted from the book
Break-ins, Death Threats
and the FBI
the covert war against the Central America movement
by Ross Gelbspan
South End Press, 1991
In the summer of 1982 the FBI dramatically upped the stakes in
its campaign against political activists. In its initial investigation
of CISPES for violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act,
the FBI sought tangible evidence that the group was directly linked
to the FMLN. But CISPES was not being paid by the FDR, was not
helping provide weapons to the FMLN and was not taking its political
direction from any "foreign principal," according to
a memo from FBI headquarters to the Justice Department in early
The following year , however, the Bureau determined
that it no longer needed such specific evidence of tangible links
between a U.S. group and an international adversary in order to
investigate the group. Henceforth, the FBI declared, it would
be enough for dissenters inside the United States to publicly
espouse positions which conformed to those of, say, the Soviet
Union, the Sandinista government of Nicaragua or the Salvadoran
FMLN rebels. That, alone, would provide the necessary evidence
that the group was, in intelligence parlance, an "active
measures front"-and, as such, a legitimate target for an
FBI terrorism investigation.
William Casey's Active Measures
... Shortly after [William Casey] assumed the directorship
of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1981, Casey ordered two
internal studies done for him by agency personnel. The Qrst was
to develop mechanisms for improving coordination between the CIA,
on one hand, and the FBI and other elements of the intelligence
community, on the other.
The second internal study involved a CIA report on "Soviet
Active Measures"-a broad term that included "soft"
covert activities designed to influence the political process
in other countries. These so-called "active measures"
included activities such as propaganda, disinformation, manipulation
of news media, the cultivation of foreign opinion leaders and
the use of "front" groups by the Soviets or their political
clients to promote Moscow's line on particular issues. Significantly,
the early CIA study identified CISPES as one such "active
measures front," even while the group was barely becoming
an organized political entity. Domestically, the political meaning
of the '`active measures" concept- minus the mystifying jargon
of intelligence specialists-was enunciated in a hearing of the
Denton committee just a month before a presentation in the summer
of 1982 by FBI and CIA officials to the House Intelligence Panel.
In a statement which opened the subcommittee's hearings on
the FBI's guidelines, Denton noted that: "...In the reordering
of priorities and the restructuring of the entities within the
Bureau which deal with substantive foreign counter-intelligence
and domestic security, an important aspect of the Bureau's work
may have fallen through the cracks. . . What seems to be missing.
. . is attention to organizations and individuals that cannot
be shown to be controlled by a foreign power and which have not
yet committed a terrorist or subversive act, but which, nevertheless,
may represent a substantial threat to the safety of Americans
and, ultimately, to the security of the country. " s J Despite
the FBI's own pronouncements that domestic terrorist events had
been declining for the previous three years, Denton continued:
"At this time of ever increasing terrorist activity, I believe
the American people need an organization that has the ability,
the desire, and the understanding of the threat to see through
propaganda and false ~ colors so that American people can be informed
of the threat represented by organizations committed to the destruction
of our freedoms. When I speak of a threat, I do not just mean
that an organization is, or is about to be, engaged in violent
criminal activity. I believe many share the view that the support
groups that produce propaganda, disinformation or legal assistance
may be even more dangerous than those who actually throw the bombs."
The following month, the House Select Committee on Intelligence
heard presentations by both the deputy director of the CIA and
the FBI's director of intelligence that prefaced a dramatic relaxation
of the restrictions on domestic surveillance-and that would come
to justify hostile government action against virtually any group
or movement that expressed opinions which wandered too far beyond
the accepted guidelines of mainstream political dialogue.
At a two-day session of the House Intelligence Committee in
July 1982, CIA deputy director John McMahon and FBI intelligence
expert Edward J. O'Malley laid out for Congress the dangers of
"Soviet Active Measures."
Although it was O'Malley who laid out the FBI's concerns about
Soviet manipulation of domestic political groups through the use
of "active measures," his presentation was actually
a follow-up on the earlier study by the CIA's Operations Directorate.
McMahon explained to the Intelligence Committee the use of "political
front groups" as an element of "active measures"
campaigns that, in retrospect, would take on enormous significance
in the context of domestic surveillance. "With Soviet and
Cuban encouragement and participation, Salvadoran leftists in
the spring of 1980 established the FDR, the political front that
represents the [Salvadoran] insurgency abroad," McMahon testified.
"The [governing body of the FDR-FMLN] called for the establishment
of solidarity committees. . .to serve as propaganda outlets, conduits
for aid, and organizers of solidarity meetings and demonstrations.
These committees are sometimes organized as part of a broader
'Nicaragua-El Salvador Solidarity Committee,' or 'Guatemala-El
Salvador Committees,' or sometimes simply as 'El Salvador Solidarity
Committees,"' he concluded.
The presentation to the Intelligence Committee contained an
indication of how central the concept of "active measures"
had become in the Reagan Administration. To respond to the "active
measures " threat, the government convened a permanent inter-agency
task force on countering "active measures" initiatives.
The group, which is chaired by the State Department and includes
representatives of the CIA, the FBI, the National Security Council
and the Defense Department, was still active as of the spring
The emergence of an inter-agency effort to counter "Soviet
active measures" raises the key question of operational links
between the FBI and CIA. It is one of the first indications that
the FBI's assault on domestic political groups was part of a larger
inter-agency effort that involved numerous other elements of the
federal intelligence community. And it explains why the FBI felt
justified in employing the same investigative techniques against
political dissenters that they used against suspected terrorists.
An Early Target: The Nuclear Freeze Movement
While a range of groups which mobilized around Central America
issues became the targets of the most extensive terrorism investigations
conducted under the "active measures" designation, it
was the overnight mushrooming of the Nuclear Freeze movement that
first prompted the Administration's most public denunciation of
a political movement as an "active measures" threat.
In October 1982, President Reagan himself voiced concern that
the Freeze movement was being manipulated by Soviet forces. The
rapid growth of the movement-and the sensitivity of the issue
of arms control-magnified the Administration's concern about a
hidden Soviet hand manipulating the groundswell of opposition
to U. S. arms control policies.
By mid-1982, the list of groups and communities endorsing
the Nuclear Freeze was formidable. It included 17 state legislatures,
276 city councils, 450 town meetings and 56 county councils. Nearly
three million citizens signed Freeze petitions. And, in addition
to a large number of mainstream religious groups, including 140
Roman Catholic bishops, labor and civic organizations, the Freeze's
supporters included the former Director of the CIA William Colby,
former Defense Secretary Clark Clifford and Gen. James Gavin.
Nevertheless, the Freeze movement-which was one of the largest
and fastest spreading grassroots movement of the 1980s-acted as
a lightning rod for the most conservative elements in the government.
Just a few days before Reagan's remarks, for instance, Senator
Jeremiah Denton, head of the Security and Terrorism Subcommittee
of the Senate Judiciary Committee, charged that the wife of Sen.
Dale Bumpers (D-Wyo.) chaired a group called Peace Links which
was subversive in nature and which "lends itself to exploitation
by the Soviet Union." Denton charged that at least four groups
represented on the Peace Links board "are either Soviet-controlled
or openly sympathetic with, and advocates for, communist foreign
policy objectives." To support his allegations, Denton put
into the record nearly 50 pages of right-wing extremist literature
which purported to show direct links between the Soviet KGB and
the Nuclear Freeze movement. Similar material, virtually all of
it lacking any credible substantiation, flooded out from Readers
Digest, Human Events magazine, the National Review and other politically
conservative organs. One such group charged that at least 13 Freeze
sponsors-from SANE, to the American Friends Service Committee
to Friends of the Earth and Physicians for Social Responsibility-"have
all been identified as communist front organizations." The
source of that information was a group called the Young Americas
Foundation-whose material on CISPES would subsequently turn up
in the files of the FBI."
That climate of red-baiting, provoked by the sudden mass popularity
of the Freeze movement, provided an encouraging environment for
the FBI. The Freeze movement peaked in 1982 when ABC-TV broadcast
a terrifyingly realistic fictional account of the outbreak of
a nuclear war between the two superpowers. The week the film was
to be aired, a group of the nation's most prominent scientists
took out a full page ad in the New York Times urging the public
to support the Freeze movement. The ad bore an address with a
post office box for members of the public to send donations and
letters of support. At the direction of headquarters, FBI agents
put a mail cover on the post office box and entered the names
of everyone who responded to the ad in the Bureau's terrorism
A Private Use of Active Measures
The zeal with which the "active measures" theme
was picked up by private right-wing activists was reflected the
following spring in a speech by John Rees to the Conservative
In his presentation, Rees first made the audience aware of
his very close relationship to the Bureau's counter-intelligence
division. "The title of the talk I prepared for this morning
was Soviet Activities in the U. S.... In the case of classical
espionage, which the FBI is supposed to monitor, I noted that
one of the KGB spies deported from France this week has the same
name as the third counselor at the Soviet Embassy on 16th street
[in Washington]. When I called the FBI to see if there was a relationship-
whether they were brothers or came from the same family-experts
in counterespionage at the FBI had not yet made that connection..."
Rees then laid out the nature of "active measures."
Getting down to specific cases, he cited the campaign in Congress
against the Administration's policies in El Salvador. "When
the [human rights] certification program of the President is put
into effect in Congress, first of all, and absolutely by coincidence
and with no coordination, the terrorists in El Salvador step up
their campaign-and take measures like blowing up generating stations,
etcetera, that achieve national publicity in the United States
thanks to the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los
Angeles Times. This is all designed to show that the legitimate
needs of the Salvadoran people are better met by the communist
terrorists than by anyone else."
"Then various congressmen-usually in the case of El Salvador
led by Tom Harkin and Ed Markey-will unleash a series of lies
based on forgeries provided to them by the Cuban DGI [the Cuban
intelligence service]. These will then become issues and there
will be street protests, attempts to blockade the State Department...
The overall effect is to discredit whatever intelligent policies
we try to develop in Central America. And at no time do you see
this program being initiated unless you see as an initiator a
member or former member of CPUSA [U.S. Communist Party] or one
of the front groups, like the National Lawyers Guild, that is
organizing, funding and taking care of logistical activities.
That is a prime indicator that it is an 'active measures' campaign."
For Rees-as for the FBI and for Bill Casey-the involvement
of a left-wing group in a protest against Administration policies
provides sufficient proof that the protest is a Soviet-manipulated
effort designed to injure or embarrass the United States government.
An Album of Terrorists, An Underground of Spies
... The idea was to compile a book of entries on known and
suspected terrorists-or people who were providing support to known
terrorists- that would provide basic identification data, photographs
and a summary of the Bureau's investigative interest in the individual.
Fingering Congressional Terrorists
In one segment of the album, the FBI managed to squeeze the
names of seven terrorist "supporters" into one entry-that
of Rep. Patricia Schroeder who for a short time considered mounting
a run for the presidency in the 1988 election. According to the
FBI album: "She is openly working on behalf of the Sandinista
Government in the U.S. through the Nicaraguan Network (NNSNP)
and CISPES. Schroeder is actively raising money for the Sandinistas.
Schroeder is involved in operation HAND (Humanitarian Aid for
Nicaraguan Democracy). She has ties with other pro-Sandinista
members of Congress: Tip O'Neill, Christopher Dodd, Michael Barnes,
Ed Boland, Edward Kennedy, Ron Dellums. WARNING. She could be
the target of right wing groups. Strong resentment in right wing
circles in the U.S. and El Salvador against her. Advise if she
... the entry on Schroeder and the other members of Congress
were not included in the final edition of the album which was
subsequently retained in FBI Headquarters.
The Miami Network
At the time Varelli was compiling Terrorist Photo Album entries
for the FBI, he was also facilitating the Bureau's exchange of
information with a group of private operatives established by
a handful of Salvadoran expatriate businessmen in Miami. The initiative,
about which Varelli had been briefed during his visit to the home
of Professor Peccorini in San Salvador in 1981, involved the establishment
of a propaganda and intelligence-gathering operation in the United
States. It followed the formation, in the late 1970s, of several
new death squads in El Salvador.
The squads in El Salvador presented themselves initially as
neighborhood defense patrol groups whose mission was to protect
the population from attacks by rebel guerrillas. They were composed
of from 15 to 20 people, including off-duty military and police
personnel working in conjunction with private anti-communist activists.
Many of the private death squad patrons provided equipment or
logistical support-trucks, jeeps, nightscopes, for example-as
well as physical support. One squad might include four military
officers plus bodyguards and another ten to twelve civilians.
They worked in small groups of five to ten people, intimidating,
threatening or assassinating people they saw as a threat to the
stability of the country.
Frustrated by the reluctance of the junta to turn the country's
full military power against the guerrillas, the death squads soon
escalated their activities from community defense to a full-blown
battle against known and suspected leftists. In the couple of
years after the 1979 installation of the junta, the death squads
were, by many accounts, fairly tightly focused on known political
enemies and their supporters. But as time passed, the squads began
to widen their sights, attacking households and villages throughout
the country and killing not only confirmed political and paramilitary
operatives but their relatives, neighbors and children-as well
as personal enemies of death squad members.
The most highly visible Salvadoran identified with the death
squads has been Roberto D'Aubuisson-an official in El Salvador's
executive security force, Ansesal, until it was disbanded in 1979.
D'Aubuisson also coordinated the operations of Orden-a vigilante
organization of rural farmers designed to promote Salvadoran-style
democracy and to set up system of surveillance to monitor the
activities of the Salvadoran left. In late 1980, both Ansesal
and Orden were disbanded, casualties of the newly-installed junta's
attempts to bring the most virulent of the nation's security forces
under the control of the government. The shift, however, served
to stimulate the growth of a more privatized network of death
squads, many of which were said to be under the direction of D'Aubuisson
and Col. Nicolas Carranza, head of the Treasury Police.
The public-private death squads saw their mission as protecting
the country from the communist guerrillas as well as El Salvador's
more moderate leftist elements, including the Christian Democrat
Party. Between 1979 and 1982, for instance, right-wing death squads
are said to have assassinated more than 260 members of that party,
including 35 mayors.
It was around the end of 1981 that the private Salvadoran
intelligence-gathering apparatus was established in the United
States. Based in Miami and operating through a network of Salvadoran
activists-including a number of former National Guard and death
squad members- the operation utilized a Wang computer in Houston
to store and collate information gathered in cities where CISPES
was active and where there was a significant Salvadoran population.
To their Miami-based Salvadoran organizers, the new North
American operation seemed the most natural way to combat what
they viewed as the move of the Salvadoran communists to bring
the war in El Salvador into the United States under cover of CISPES
and other sympathetic organizations.
When former members of the Salvadoran military or security
forces turned up in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston,
Dallas, New Orleans, Miami or Washington, D.C., they would be
put in touch with the organizers in Miami who would welcome them
into the network.
As the bands of Salvadoran activists grew to between 50 and
100 people in those southern and western cities which harbored
large Salvadoran populations, they began to gather as much information
as they could on CISPES and other groups sympathetic to the Salvadoran
rebels. Working in small cell-like groups of three or four members
of the secret network would spy on liberal groups, monitor rallies,
speeches and other political events and, according to some reports,
terrorize members of CISPES in an effort to stop their propagandizing
on behalf of the FMLN rebels.
The operation funneled material to the FBI-at first to the
Dallas office, but, according to Varelli, the Miami-based Salvadorans
subsequently dealt directly with the FBI's Miami office. The operation
was so extensive and so successful, that Varelli was amazed to
learn, when he traveled to Miami in 1985, that the Salvadorans
knew as much, if not more, about domestic Central America groups
as did the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The Decoy or the Duck
Michael Ratner, Margaret Ratner, Chip Berlet and Dr. Ann Mari
Buitrago saw it coming from the beginning. The only problem was
that for the longest time they couldn't tell which direction it
was coming from.
The Ratners worked at the Center for Constitutional Rights,
a public interest group of liberal and left-wing lawyers based
in lower Manhattan. For them, as well as for Berlet, a political
researcher who had been involved in cases involving the FBI and
the Chicago Red Squad, and Buitrago, one of the country's foremost
experts in the use of the Freedom of Information Act, the election
of Ronald Reagan began to raise alarms as early as the winter
of 1980. They were concerned not only about the candidate's rhetoric
but about the composition of his transition team and the Heritage
Foundation recommendations for strengthening the nation's domestic
In general, however, those early signs were dismissed, if
not ignored, as left-wing paranoia. The leadership of the Washington
office of the American Civil Liberties Union, for instance, declared
that civil liberties and government surveillance would not be
significant issues in the 1980s. Instead, it argued, the emphasis
of the Reagan Administration would be almost exclusively economic-and
the battles of the coming years would involve issues of economic
justice and the rights of the poor rather than issues of free
speech and civil liberties. In fact, Morton Halperin, of the ACLU,
accused attorneys at the Center for Constitutional Rights of raising
a specter of alarmism without giving the administration an opportunity
to prove that it was not bent on subverting the intelligence and
law enforcement communities to do its political bidding.
But while the Ratners, Berlet and Buitrago were concerned
about what they saw as the coming crackdown on political freedom,
it was not the FBI that first caught their attention, but a new
Senate committee-the Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism (SST
- which was created by the incoming Republican majority in Congress
to focus public attention on the threat of international terrorism
and the peril of domestic subversion.
Created as a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee,
the SST was staffed by Senators Orrin Hatch of Utah and John East
of North Carolina, and headed by Alabama Senator Jeremiah Denton,
a member of the Moral Majority who spent seven years as a prisoner
of war in a Vietnamese prison camp. Along with Senator Jesse Helms,
East, Hatch and Denton believed that the greatest threat to the
United States was the danger of "creeping communism."
And, to that end, the committee set j out to expose the danger
of internal subversion.
The Terrorism Cover
In his opening address at the first meeting of the subcommittee
in 1981, Denton declared: "The subcommittee plans to investigate
certain organizations which, within the United States, engage
in, or have engaged in acts of terrorism, including bombings,
acts of sabotage, aircraft hijacking, armed assaults and homicides."'
But the political implications of Denton's proclamation came
clear in short order when staffers in Hatch's office leaked the
fact that the SST planned to investigate, among others, three
left-liberal institutions that had never been associated with
terrorism or violence of any sort. According to those early leaks,
the SST would take on the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS),
a left-liberal think tank in Washington which provided substantial
input to Congressional deliberations on a range of domestic and
foreign policies; the North American Congress on Latin America
(NACLA), a left-wing research institute in New York which conducted
a number of studies critical of U.S. economic and diplomatic policies
in Latin America; and Mother Jones, a left-liberal magazine which
featured investigative reports on corporate excesses, environmental
abuse and social injustices.
In the spring of 1981, concerned by the emergence of SST,
Margaret Ratner drafted a letter of opposition to the subcommittee
"In the 1950s, the country was convulsed by a series
of political acts which made a mockery of the concept of democracy.
Hundreds and thousands of people saw their lives and livelihoods
destroyed as the House Un-American Activities Committee and the
Senate Internal Security Subcommittee engaged in their nightmarish
witchhunts for dissidents...These committees were determined to
ruin all who opposed their interpretation of 'Americanism'. ..
History has since repudiated that tragic period...[Today, however]
we are alarmed by the establishment of the new Subcommittee on
Security and Terrorism. This new subcommittee has wrapped itself
in a thoroughly vague mandate: it will investigate 'terrorist
activities' and matters relating to 'national security.' Yet,
who is to define those terms? Is opposition to the committee itself
a 'threat to national security? 'Will those who maintain their
constitutional rights of free speech and assembly be deprived
of their human rights as they were at other times in this nation's
history? Committee member John East has remarked that 'the biggest
threat to civil liberties today is terrorism.' But we assert that
the committee, itself, poses the biggest threat to our civil liberties."
Noting that such committees have traditionally operated more
by holding public hearings and generating publicity for their
causes than through actual legislative initiatives, Ratner accused
the Administration of planning to use the SST to "rally support
for the concept of a terrorist threat and to act as a propaganda
machine to generate fear." The public success of the committee
would subsequently be used, she wrote: "to allow us to support
regimes such as the one in El Salvador; to grant the FBI and the
CIA the extra support required if they are to carry out more illegal
and repressive operations... to control dissent...and, finally,
to curtail civil liberties."
At the same time that the attorneys at the Center for Constitutional
Rights were warning activists about the new Denton committee,
Berlet, who had worked with the National Lawyers Guild and who
had written extensively on the FBI abuses of the 1960s, was becoming
increasingly concerned at what he saw as a new climate of red-baiting
not only of political groups but also of left-wing and liberal
In an article in Alternative Media, Berlet noted that the
SST and other elements close to the Reagan White House were taking
aim at such outlets as Pacifica Radio, CovertAction Information
Bulletin and Mother Jones. "Charges that the media is part
of the Soviet plan for world conquest have escaped the confines
of conservative living rooms and are now ringing in the halls
of Congress...Publications on the Right are calling for investigations
into how alternative media groups are part of a KGB disinformation
campaign," Berlet wrote, noting that the Heritage report
identified even mainstream journalists "who may engage in
subversive activities without being fully aware of the extent,
purposes or control of their activities."
No More Witch Hunts
In June 1981, Berlet, the Ratners and other activists organized
simultaneous conferences around the theme of "No More Witch
Hunts" in 19 cities, including Chicago, Detroit, Houston,
Los Angeles, New York, St. Louis and Washington. In New York "No
More Witch Hunts" took the form of a street fair on West
8th Street, in which participants were exposed to a frightening
array of surveillance technology-high-tech bugging devices, infra-red
night-vision telescopes, and wigs, fake mustaches and make-up
kits used by undercover infiltrators.
In Chicago, the conference attracted more than 1,000 people
and featured an address by Mayor Harold Washington. The event
was endorsed by nearly 90 organizations-including the Illinois
branch of the ACLU, the American Friends Service Committee, the
Gray Panthers, the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Chicago, the Mobilization
for Survival, the United Auto Workers and the Women's International
League for Peace and Freedom. Whether by coincidence or design,
the names of the majority of those sponsoring organizations were
discovered, seven years later, to have been entered into the FBI's
terrorism files in the course of the Bureau's investigation of
CISPES and the octopus-like spread of the Bureau's probe into
a vast array of domestic groups dedicated to reducing the risks
of nuclear war, to protecting the environment, to advocating for
the rights of the poor and disenfranchised, and to criticizing
the policies of the Reagan Administration in Latin and Central
Privatized Intelligence Salvadoran Style
A super-secret, paramilitary group, the Tecos, who date their
organization from 1910, were revived after World War II by a Mexican
Nazi who spent the war in Germany and an Argentine Jesuit priest
who was an admirer of Hitler. By the early 1970s, the Tecos, supported
by a network of anti-communist activists throughout Central and
Latin America, formed the Mexican Anti-Communist Federation, with
links to death squads in Guatemala, Argentina and Paraguay. In
1972, the Tecos spearheaded the formation of the Latin American
Anti-Communist Federation, the Latin American chapter of the World
Anti-Communist League. The group was heavily involved in the formulation
of the "Banzer Plan" in 1976. The "Banzer Plan,"
aimed at identifying and destroying networks of left-wing clergy
who were promulgating 'Liberation Theology' in Latin America,
called for a shared database, involving the security forces of
ten Central and Latin American countries, to "maintain up-to-date
information about the ideological orientation of the main religious
institutions, as well as to elaborate a file containing the names
of priests and nuns along with their personal background, to be
annually revised." Within two years after the operation of
the database, at least twenty-eight bishops, priests and lay workers
were killed in Latin America, allegedly by right-wing death squads
destroying networks of left-wing clergy who were promulgating
'Liberation Theology' in Latin America, called for a shared database,
involving the security forces of ten Central and Latin American
countries, to "maintain up-to-date information about the
ideological orientation of the main religious institutions, as
well as to elaborate a file containing the names of priests and
nuns along with their personal background, to be annually revised."
Within two years after the operation of the database, at least
twenty-eight bishops, priests and lay workers were killed in Latin
America, allegedly by right-wing death squads.
It was shortly thereafter that Berlet began to organize a
series of public conferences on the threat of FBI and governmental
Asked why he and other movement people did not suspect the
FBI earlier than 1984, Berlet explained: "Because you are
so acutely aware of the propensity to become paranoid, you bend
over backwards to be skeptical and un-paranoid." Berlet,
who initially set out to work as a higher education policy analyst,
explained he was attracted to movement work because "I get
passionately upset when I see that the Constitution and Bill of
Rights is not enforced. It's just not a fair fight. For doing
this, I have seen countless people hurt, jailed, even killed.
What you're up against when you take on the FBI, the CIA, the
undercover informants who feed the governmental apparatus, is
a self-selected group of people who have a messianic vision of
themselves. It keeps rising up over and over again. Trying to
protect civil liberties is like Sisyphus. It is an unceasing battle.
All governments want more power. It makes them more efficient.
But democracy, on the other hand, implies inefficiency. So there's
always the need to fight back. The battle over domestic civil
liberties will never be won. It just has to keep being fought."
For Dr. Ann Mari Buitrago, a longtime movement activist and
one of the country's pre-eminent experts in understanding and
deciphering FBI files, the secret of the CISPES investigation
was foreshadowed by the Reagan Administration's efforts to gut
the Freedom of Information Act. As a graduate student, Buitrago
had gotten involved with progressive causes during the Rosenberg
trials. In the late 1970s, when the FBI released thousands of
pages of Rosenberg files on the case, Buitrago found herself fascinated
by the challenge of trying to piece those files into a whole picture.
That fascination led her to establish, in 1979, an organization
called FOLA, Inc., which was devoted to helping scholars, historians,
researchers and plain citizens use the Freedom of Information
"In early Reagan years, the Freedom of Information Act
came under sustained attack by the Justice Department, the Office
of Management and Budget, and all sorts of executive agencies.
As the attacks on the Freedom of Information law mounted, we worked
with Congressional committees to keep the law alive. That was
our main battle during the early period. That's where FOLA, Inc.
was most active."
Buitrago, who in 1988 and 1989 would quarterback the effort
to secure release of field office documents and work with Central
America groups in various cities to decipher what she could of
the FBI's operations against those groups, has long seen the Freedom
of Information Act as a barometer of the overall activities of
"The Freedom of Information Act is a wonderful tell-tale.
If you see an administration that sets out to attack it, gut it,
get rid of that act, that means it is intending to do something
it thinks the public will not approve of. It is setting out with
something to hide, and repression will follow. You don't have
to know what precisely they're up to. If you just watch what they
do to freedom of information, you can figure out where to start
The CIA At Home, the FBI Abroad
Around the same time that the FBI dramatically intensified its
~ crackdown on Central America groups, a separate cluster of government
l agencies was establishing a clandestine operation aimed at secretly
pumping the Administration's own brand of propaganda into the
consciousness of the American electorate through a covert campaign
aimed at securing newspaper space and television and radio time
for advocates of Reagan policies in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
The architect of this second line of information control was
none other than William Casey, director of the Central Intelligence
Agency. Toward the end of 1982, Casey made it clear that the Administration
was not doing what it should to win the battle of public opinion
and convince the mass of voters to support the Reagan Administration's
military intervention in El Salvador and, more importantly, its
increasing isolation of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua and
its concurrent mobilization of the contras.
As a result, Casey established an operation designed to control
the flow of information on which the voting public would base
its attitudes toward Central America policies. The second front
of the assault on the U.S. public involved pumping pro-Administration
propaganda into the public consciousness via the press, the television
networks, and the nation's libraries, to win the "hearts
and minds" of the voters for a set of policies which had
hitherto been rejected by a substantial portion of voters and
their representatives in Congress.'
Although the Administration's viewpoint-including much of
the real and fabricated intelligence that it used to justify its
Central America policies-was made public through a network of
conservative publications as well as through a regular program
of White House briefings for conservative supporters, Casey feared
that the Administration was basically "preaching to the converted."
What was needed, he felt, was a new and separate apparatus which
would better explain the rationale for U.S. activities in Central
America to the public. To accomplish the mission, Casey tapped
Walter Raymond, Jr., a long-time propaganda specialist with the
CIA. But there was one problem. The CIA is forbidden by law from
conducting operations inside the United States. For Casey or his
employees at the Agency to run a covert domestic propaganda campaign
would be to invite the harshest kind of Congressional retribution
should the operation ever be discovered. The problem was difficult-but
An Explosion of Names
At 10:59 on the night of November 7, 1983, a tiny wristwatch
timer hidden in a crevice of a second-floor window of the United
States Senate ticked off the last 60 seconds of its functional
A minute later, a clap of thunder echoed out across Capitol
Hill. The explosion splintered the doors to the Senate Chamber,
some 30 feet away. A hole fifteen feet high and several feet wide
appeared in the wall of the ornate, ceremonial Mansfield Room.
Debris and plaster dust filled the nearby Republican cloakroom.
A rare 1815 Grandfather clock lay in pieces. Portraits of Henry
Clay, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun were reduced to strips
of torn canvas.
The bombing of the Capitol-climaxing, as it did, a chain of
similar, unsolved attacks over the previous year and a half-provided
the Bureau with an extraordinary opportunity.
On one level, a break in the bombings would go far to restoring
the FBI's image as an effective and dependable guardian of the
nation's domestic security.
More significantly, the bombing of the Capitol sounded a starter's
gun for the FBI to dramatically expand and intensify its next
round of intelligence gathering activities on virtually every
liberal and left-wing political group in the country.
While the FBI's public information office had portrayed the
bombings as relatively insignificant events perpetrated by small,
isolated groups of radicals, the more zealous agents in the counter-terrorism
unit believed that assessment was designed to serve the political
needs of FBI director William Webster. Webster had declared three
years earlier that the FBI had "broken the backs," of
such revolutionary groups as the Weather Underground and the Puerto
Rican FALN. But to many agents in the foreign counter-intelligence
and counter-terrorism units, Webster was seen as the ultimate
bureaucrat, the kind of man who would go along to get along. In
Ronald Reagan's America, it was not good form to indicate that
there was substantial discontent within American society. An admission
of a domestic terrorist threat would focus attention on discontent.
But agents like Davenport and Flanagan knew that there was
discontent. The evidence lay in the dramatic growth and spread
of groups like CISPES which were bitterly critical of U.S. foreign
policy. And they knew that the best way to neutralize those groups
and silence their expressions of discontent would be to connect
them to the string of bombings that had been reported in the press
as relatively insignificant events committed by a small splinter
group of isolated revolutionaries. Any concrete link between the
bombers and the network of highly visible Central America political
groups would completely vindicate all the FBI's investigations
of groups opposed to Reagan Administration policies in Central
America. Such a connection would prove that groups like CISPES,
the Inter-Religious Task Force, the Nicaraguan Network and the
Central America Solidarity Association were all part of a larger
terror network, with links to international terrorists.
Such a break could lead at least to a federal conspiracy indictment,
with all its attendant publicity. Even more important in the minds
of the more zealous agents, it would, once and for all, generate
the public revulsion needed to put a stop to the propaganda and
disinformation these "active measures" organizations
were using to pollute the public discussion of U.S. policies in
But it was obvious that any investigation aimed at linking
highly visible political groups to an international terrorist
network would involve extensive domestic intelligence gathering.
And that was something with which Webster did not want to be associated.
With his blessing, Oliver Revell, at the time the head of the
FBI's criminal investigative division, took on the job of overseeing
the Bureau's counter-terrorism apparatus. It was a way for Webster
to be assured the job was being handled-but without any of his
fingerprints, lest the campaign of domestic surveillance be discovered
down the line. It was the kind of plausible deniability that enabled
Revell to tell a Senate committee in 1988 that Webster did not
authorize the CISPES investigation, nor was he informed about
developments in the probe-although it lasted at least five years
and involved every FBI field office in the United States.
Operating ostensibly behind the back of Director Webster,
the FBI stepped up its intelligence gathering activities to a
feverish pitch following the bombing of the Capitol. "The
Bureau used the bombing as a pretext to gather every possible
bit of intelligence on every group they had identified. It was
an opportunity to rebuild and reconstruct legally the FBI files
on domestic activists that had been ordered deactivated by the
Church Committee," Varelli recalled later. "The Bureau
exploited the bombing like hell. It triggered a nationwide intelligence
gathering mobilization. It was used to the maximum."
Officially the FBI indicated it was most concerned about the
emergence of a secret, armed terrorist group which included members
from various organizations but which was traceable through none.
The fear the FBI expressed in classified briefings to overseers
in Congress was that CISPES and a host of other groups, many reincarnations
of groups born in the 1960s, were all part of a terrorist infrastructure
which drew support and direction from the Cuban intelligence agency
as well as the KGB and the International Department of the Central
Committee of the Soviet Communist Party.
If members of that hidden network could bomb the Capitol with
impunity, what did that mean for the upcoming Republican National
Convention in Dallas or the summer Olympics in Los Angeles? The
FBI asserted that the spate of bombings could be the signal for
a full-blown terrorist offensive in the United States. Whatever
damage the bombings might inflict on innocent individuals and
private property, moreover, would be dwarfed by the psychological
victory of demonstrating to the world the weakness and vulnerability
of the nation's law enforcement agencies.
Privately, however, FBI's intelligence contained precious
little information to suggest that a coordinated network was actually
planning a nationwide campaign of armed violence. And even if
such a network of the most hard core groups-those with histories
of violent activities -had such plans, it had virtually no public
support. The country was in no imminent danger of a mass uprising
led by an advance guard of the revolution.
More to the point was the fact that FBI officials had determined
the identities of the suspected bombers even before the next round
of political intelligence-gathering, under the cover of a terrorism
investigation, was underway.
Within days of the bombing, Headquarters officials advised
the various field offices that the bombing was the work of a splinter
group that the FBI suspected was connected to the small May 19th
Communist Organization. The near-instant identification of the
suspects came from evidence which had been gathered from the string
of bombings over the previous year in New York, where bombs had
damaged the Bankers Trust Building, the offices of IBM, the South
African airline office. and police and court buildings in New
York City-and in Washington, where bombs had exploded at Fort
McNair and the Washington Navy Yard.
In the case of virtually every bombing, callers claiming responsibility
indicated that they acted on behalf of either the Puerto Rican
FALN, the PLO, the Salvadoran FMLN or two hitherto unknown groups,
the Armed Resistance Unit or the United Freedom Front. But from
forensic evidence and discoveries of explosives and plans, the
FBI learned that the bombers were part of the Armed Resistance
Unit, a tiny offshoot of the May 19th Communist Organization-with
no known connections to the FMLN or any of the domestic Central
Nevertheless, despite the Bureau's almost immediate identification
of the bombing suspects, the FBI used the occasion for a massive
intensification of the probe of hundreds of left-wing and liberal
Death Threats and the FBI